First Division Museum

For military vehicle restoration enthusiasts and military historians, a visit to Cantigny Park in the outer Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Illinois, is a must if you’re in the Windy City. Touring this world-class museum will take you the better part of a day because you’ll find two major attractions here: a tank park and a world-class museum devoted to the U.S. First Infantry Division.

Tucked away in this suburban gem of a park, only 20 minutes from downtown Chicago, the First Division Museum gives you an insight into one of the United States’ most renowned divisions that fought with distinction in both World Wars, the Viet Nam War, Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Tank Park

First you have to get past the outdoor display consisting of 11 tanks, an APC and four Howitzers and field guns that surround the museum, which could take you a while! Tucked away among beautiful forest and greenery you can walk from tank to tank, and read a short history of each type of vehicle on small signs.

The First Division Museum
Attracting over 110,000 visitors each year, the First Division Museum is superbly produced. Boasting 10,000 square feet of professionally arranged artifacts, exhibits and dioramas, the museum displays the proud history of the “Big Red One,” the American First Division. The First Infantry Division is the oldest and continuously active division in the U.S. Army today.

The museum’s Director of Operations, Keith Gill, told me that the museum at Cantigny was expensive to build, to the tune of two million dollars. Colonel Robert McCormick, the late editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune owned the estate that Cantigny Park now stands on. In fact, his magnificent mansion, now also a museum, stands across the other side of the park. The First Division Museum opened in its current location in 1992.

McCormick served in the 1st Infantry Division in WWI, including in the 1st Division’s first battle in France, in the small town of Cantigny. Here, on 28 May 1918, the 1st’s untested and green troops went over the top and performed well, much to the relief of the English and French military who had been foundering in the quagmire of trench warfare since 1914.

When McCormick returned to Chicago, he renamed his estate Cantigny in honor of his division’s first battle in France. He took care of many veterans of the 1st, often employing them at his newspaper. When he passed away, his will set up a trust to open and maintain the estate as a public park, and eventually, the trustees had the First Division Museum built.

Many of the museum’s 13,000 artifacts are displayed in a series of interactive galleries. There’s enough stuff here to outfit a sizeable platoon, including medals, badges, caps, uniforms, flags, posters and soldier’s personal effects including shaving kits, blankets, mess kits, canteens, rations, cigarettes and bank notes. The variety of weapons and munitions on display is excellent with pistols, rifles, bayonets, mortars, artillery shells, grenades and ammunition bags. Other interesting military equipment ranges from field glasses, boots, lifebelts, gas masks, radios, first aid kits, to battlefield relics like nasty looking, jagged pieces of shrapnel, and regimental colors and banners. And you’ll find plenty of enthusiastic volunteers, including 1st Division veterans, to guide you through the museum and point out some of the more exotic exhibits and tell stories about some of the items.

The life-size dioramas are the highlights of the museum’s galleries, providing very moving visual drama as you walk through a WWI front line trench, an underground bunker, and a ruined farmhouse at Cantigny, complete with the sounds of battle and exploding shells raging around you.

I learned about the 1st Division’s role in Operation Torch, in North Africa and how it helped drive out Erwin Rommel’s Africa Korps in 1942. Then I boarded a WWII landing craft to emerge on Omaha Beach on D-Day, where the 16th Regimental Combat Team of the 1st Division saw fierce fighting and took heavy casualties (about 1,000) along Easy Red and Fox Green sectors at its eastern end. Barbed wire, ammunition boxes and defensive tetrahedrons and the detritus of war litter the pebbly beach. Landing craft and defensive tetrahedrons painted on the rear wall make a realistic scene of the carnage on bloody Omaha.

Then, rounding a corner, I’m stopped dead in my tracks. There’s a hulking M4A3E8 Sherman tank concealed among some trees, with turret and gun pointing directly at me. Keith Gill tells me they had to install the tank first and then build the museum. Several soldiers stand alongside the Sherman, silently emerging out of the dark, snow-clad Ardennes forest. Further on, I walked through a jungle to get some idea of what the patrolling soldiers in the Big Red One had to endure in Viet Nam. One heck of a museum!

THE FIRST DIVISION MUSEUM AT CANTIGNY (1s151 Winfield Rd., Wheaton, IL 60189-3353; 630/260-8185, www.firstdivisionmuseum.org) is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10-4 (March-April, Nov.-Dec.) and Tuesday-Sunday, 10-5 (May-Oct.). Check their website for holiday hours and months not listed (Jan.-Feb.).